One little boy and his struggle to fit in at school
My mobile was ringing and I hoped I would be able to find it in my handbag before it stopped. “Hello my name is Sarah Jones”, the voice said, “and I’m the Head at a small village school. I would be really grateful if you would come and deliver a workshop for my staff on dyspraxia”.
I had been working as the West Midlands’ Education Officer for the Dyspraxia Foundation for a year. I was over half way through the 20 month role aimed at raising awareness of this condition amongst teaching staff. It was a role I was delighted to do, as I feel very passionately that there is a massive need to improve the understanding of this incredibly common but poorly recognised condition. As a parent of a girl with dyspraxia, sometimes known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), I knew firsthand the difficulties she faced at school and the largest obstacle of all was the lack of awareness amongst some of her teachers.
My work involved delivering workshops for schools either in staff meetings or on training days. I had found that the vast majority of teaching staff openly admitted that they had very limited knowledge of dyspraxia and felt very unsure of the best practices to put in place to support these children. Yet many were recognising that more and more children were showing dyspraxic tendencies. According to the Dyspraxia Foundation there are between one and three children with dyspraxia in every class of thirty, an average of seven to ten per cent of the population.
As I went from school to school, I was frequently greeted with comments like: “We don’t have any children diagnosed with dyspraxia in school”. Without exception, as I delivered the workshop, I could see staff whispering to each other and by the end of the session they always had a list of children who “ticked many of the boxes”. What I found incredibly uplifting was just how far so many teachers were prepared to go to support these children once they understood the condition. I came to the conclusion that the battles these children face within the education system were attributed solely to the lack of awareness and understanding of dyspraxia and not to any lack of desire to do the right thing for them.
“I would be delighted to do a workshop at your school”, I replied to Mrs Jones. She went on to explain that it was a small school on the Herefordshire/Welsh border and they had a little boy, seven years old, who had just been diagnosed with dyspraxia. She admitted that neither she nor her staff had “the first clue about dyspraxia”. She said he was a lovely little boy but that he could annoy the other children and did have frequent outbursts of temper. She described him as having good days and bad days, frequently falling off his chair, struggling with writing, not sitting still and not remembering instructions. She also described him as incredibly creative and able to tell fantastic stories well beyond his years. He was certainly fitting the familiar profile.
A date was set for me to deliver a workshop in this very rural area of Herefordshire. Having allowed plenty of “getting stuck behind a tractor” time in my journey, I found myself there too early, sitting outside this little school just as playtime was coming to an end. The children were all out on the field and I noticed the boys playing football. One little boy immediately caught my attention because he was running with his hands flapping away by his sides, so typical of a child with dyspraxia. I speculated that this was probably the little boy Mrs Jones had mentioned to me.
The game progressed and I noticed that whenever the ball came close to him he would quickly look around to check that there was another boy close by whom he then gladly allowed to kick the ball. To the casual observer, it looked like he was playing football but, in fact, he never even attempted to make contact with the ball and almost panicked when it came close. All of a sudden, the ball went into some scrubland and all the boys stopped and looked at the boy I had been observing. He immediately puffed himself up, ran off to pick up the ball and threw it back into the game. I realised that there had been boys much closer who could more easily have retrieved the ball. Evidently, though, by mutual consent, this was his contribution to the game.
The whistle blew and all the children ran off the field onto the playground to line up. The noise of the whistle had startled the little lad I had been watching (let’s call him Tommy). He stood still and covered his ears with his hands. Then, in his fright, he started running and promptly fell over, taking another boy down with him. Unfortunately they landed on the hard concrete and the other lad became the landing pad for Tommy. The teacher came over just as the boys got to their feet. The poor boy that had been knocked over had two grazed knees and hands and was obviously upset. I couldn’t hear what the teacher said to Tommy but he hung his head.
A short while later I went to the school’s Reception area, where I was asked to take a seat while I waited for Mrs Jones. By now, the children were all lined up in front of me. I noticed Tommy at the back of the queue with a gap between him and the other children. His shirt was out of his shorts and he had turned to face the wall, burying his face in his bent elbow. The children at the end of the queue were obviously taking him to task for knocking the other boy over, who was easily identified by the two enormous plasters on his knees. Just as Mrs Jones appeared, Tommy, all of a sudden, turned on the children and said in a loud voice: “It’s not my fault I’ve got dyspraxia…I didn’t mean to knock him over”. Mrs Jones and I exchanged looks.
Ignoring the outburst, she said: “Tommy, this is Mrs Parvin and she has come to tell the teachers all about dyspraxia”. I found two large blue eyes looking at me expectantly. So I bent down and told Tommy that I have a little girl who has dyspraxia, that she finds some things really difficult and that sometimes she knocks into people and accidentally hurts them, but she can’t help it. “There are some things, though, that Lydia is very good at”, I said. Then, turning to the other children who were, by now, all listening, I asked: “Do you think I can guess what Tommy is good at? I’ve never met him before so I don’t know what he’s good at but do you think I can guess?” The boy with the new plasters, forgetting all about his sore knees, suddenly said: “I know what he’s good at”. For a horrible moment, I thought he was going to say that Tommy is good at pushing people over. So I said quickly: “I bet he’s really, really good at stories”.
“Yes, yes he’s brilliant”, said the boy with the plasters. “He told us a really great story at carpet time today…Go on Tommy tell us it again.” Mrs Jones and I moved away and when I looked back Tommy had all their attention as he started his story.
How to spot dyspraxia
Driving home, I reflected on my encounter with Tommy. This was such a classic picture of dyspraxia. Here was a clever little boy, painfully aware of his difficulties, bravely creating strategies such as the ones he was using in football to cover up his difficulties and to try to “fit in”. Yet his own little strategies were insufficient to get him through the day and his frustrations built up until they burst out into temper. He so desperately needed the adults around him to understand his difficulties.
During my brief encounter with Tommy he displayed many of the classic signs of dyspraxia, such as:
- gross motor difficulties (Tommy’s hand flapping run and avoidance of kicking the ball)
- poor kinaesthetic awareness (falling over and his inability to judge the space between himself and the other boy)
- social isolation (the other children rounding on him)
- sensory sensitivity (he was startled by the whistle and covered his ears)
- tactile defensiveness (leaving a gap in a queue)
- disorganised (he was very dishevelled in his appearance compared to the other children).
Tommy’s teachers had picked up on other signals:
- fine motor difficulties (his writing difficulties)
- poor proprioception (falling off the chair for no apparent reason and his inability to sit still)
- auditory processing problems (not following or remembering instructions well)
- creative mind (the benefit of neurodiversity – having the ability to be incredibly creative and to think differently)
- prone to emotional outbursts (he simply didn’t know how to handle the situation when the others rounded on him).
Following the dyspraxia training session, his teachers told me they could now put it all together and see that Tommy definitely displayed some of the classic signs. They were really keen to implement the strategies I had suggested. They had also highlighted a few other children to refer for further assessment. A few months later, Mrs Jones emailed me and told me that Tommy was doing really well and hadn’t had a single temper outburst. Naturally, I was thrilled and I knew that many more “Tommies” could be helped by their teachers knowing about this condition.
One to three children in every class of thirty is a massive number of children. I know, though, that there are still many who are slipping through the net and this hugely impacts on their academic achievement and their behaviour. With the right awareness and understanding, plus some simple and cheap strategies, teachers can quickly make an enormous difference to many children with dyspraxia or dyspraxic type tendencies in their care.
Cathy Parvin is a “Dyspraxia Foundation Approved” independent trainer. She has been running a parent helpline for seven years and is the former Education Officer at the Dyspraxia Foundation. Cathy is also the mother of a 15-year-old girl with dyspraxia:
The Dyspraxia Foundation: